Richard Linklater’s Ordinary Boyhood

Boyhood

There have been those who have proclaimed Boyhood the greatest film of the 21st century.  And there’s a huge faction that believe it’s Richard Linklater’s magnum opus.  Though surely a 2014 Top Ten contender, I’m not even sure it’s the best film of the year thus far, and the Before- trilogy is still Linklater’s crowning achievement in my mind.   I suspect there’s been a bit of the old Group Think at work in delivering this hyperbolic praise.

But Boyhood is still a uniquely constructed film full of winning moments, performances…and flaws.

Filmed over the course of twelve years with the same four leads (two adults – Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, and two children – Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater) meeting with the writer/director to riff for a few weeks at a time in his sprawling Texas homeland, Boyhood is wholly original in its depiction of the passage of time and aging in the context of a singular work of cinema.

The early years of Mason’s life are depicted with an easy flow and are full of humor and charm.  The kids are naturally cute and precocious, and the director obviously had a blast letting his own daughter cut loose, gifting her classic sassy little girl lines and mannerisms that seemed organic.  I’ve heard him joke in interviews that Lorelei cast herself as soon as she found out her dad had written the role, and based on what is seen on screen in these early scenes, I reckon it’s a true story.  Meanwhile, Mom and Dad aren’t together from the onset, and while they have their own sets of problems, both Hawke and Arquette are so effortlessly likable, you instantly root for them to get their shit together…not so much for the kids’ sake, but for their own.

As the film moves into middle childhood and the teen years, it starts to plod a bit, and some of the clichéd and overwrought plot mechanics Linklater uses (Doh! Mom marries not one, but two alcoholics!) take away from the film’s realism.  It seems to get stuck there in middle school, but before we know it, Mason is a moody, mumbling high schooler…until he starts to drink and try soft drugs where Linklater attempts to recapture some of the old rambling magic that made the aimless philosophy of Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Waking Life so enjoyable.  There are times, though, Mason comes across as so lackadaisical you want to shake him to wake him up.  He never really stands up for anything, though he does lash out eventually at stepdad number two to get off his back, and he does take a shining to the art of photography.  Linklater comically channels this feeling of wanting to shake (perhaps shape?) his protagonist through pep talks from his photography teacher and first boss (at least the kid gets a job much like I did at that age as a busboy/dishwasher with fry-cook aspirations). Continue reading

Did You Ever See A Dream Walking?

Traversing the Treacherous Geography of Childhood in Lady in White

Do you see what I see?

Do you see what I see?

Frank LaLoggia’s forgotten classic from 1988, Lady in White, opens with a Stephen King-style novelist returning to his hometown of Willowpoint to visit a gravesite.  From there we’re whisked back to 1962 when our protagonist Frankie Scarlatti was 10 years-old living with his widowed father and smart-aleck older brother.  One fateful Halloween, a couple of childhood chums play a prank and lock poor Frankie in the coat closet at school where he must brave the night cold and alone.  There he witnesses the mysterious ghost of a little girl act out her murder – and from there young Frankie becomes determined to help the ghost find peace, uncover the identity of the town’s serial child killer and solve the mystery of the town legend of The Lady of White (which is somehow connected to the killings).

The ghost hums the eerily nostalgic Bing Crosby tune, “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” – the killer’s favorite – and the song is used as a powerful motif throughout the film. Continue reading

Memories, Incidents and The Cat’s Table of Tall Tales

My favorite piece of short fiction to appear in The New Yorker last year was hands-down Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table – a poignant and evocative piece about an eleven year-old Sri Lankan boy’s coming of age on the high seas while sailing on a rowdy cruise ship (The Oronsay) to boarding school in England. 

I was overjoyed to discover it was part of a larger novel released in October of last year.  I was puzzled to find the story that appeared in The New Yorker was not a straight excerpt and had instead been parsed and elaborated on in long form during the first half of the novel of the same name.  In this extended tale, the full twenty-one days of the early 1950’s voyage are realized and a parade of new characters traverses the decks. 

The Cat’s Table refers to the not-so-enviable table in the back of the dining room where the young boy (Michael) sat along with two other boys (the wild Cassius and the sickly Ramadhin) and a rag-tag team of adults including a jazzy wisdom-spewing washed-up musician (Mr. Mazappa) and a mysteriously quiet English bird-lady (Miss Lasqueti).  The unsupervised trio of rascals have the run of the ship, exploring every nook and cranny and soaking up every story and incident from the revolving door of worldly adults in the their midst.  Mystery and adventure, but also misfortune and melancholy soak the ship as it heads half-way across the globe touching on Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Continue reading

The Mirror of Film

The Tree of Life - Submerging memories through film.

Still awash in fresh memories of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, I watched for the first time Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 film The Mirror.  The problem I’ve had with Tarkovsky films in the past (especially Stalker, which I found tedious and nearly impenetrable though certain moments and images have stubbornly stuck with me) is that I feel like you need an advanced degree in Russian history to understand the context and symbolism.  With Malick’s film, however, illuminating the way, I found Tarkovsky’s The Mirror to be deeply rewarding on multiple levels, and it emerged as an unforgettable cinematic experience deserving of repeated views.

The two films are strikingly similar: deeply personal, semi-autobiographical, supplemented by other art forms (classical music is used exquisitely in both, while The Mirror also drew upon original poetry) and constructed in a stream-of-consciousness style made to evoke dreams and memories.  Both films are deeply rooted in the childhoods of their makers. Continue reading

Memory and Magic in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

Like an Andrew Wyeth painting come to life, Malick's obsession with open doors and windows conjures myth and memories.

Nature is a cruel and unforgiving mistress.
 
Over time, man has conjured God to tame her and give reason and order to the random chaos.
 
In present day, a man named Jack (Sean Penn) wanders listlessly through a cold, sterile metropolis where success is measured by wealth and excess.  On the anniversary of his brother’s death, a call to his father triggers an ocean of memories to come rushing over him.  Distracted, he daydreams and wonders about the meaning of life and why his brother had to be taken from him.  Was it because of the bad things he did as a child?  Was it a failure on the part of his parents?  Is it because his God is a mysterious and unknowable power that snuffs out life as easily as it gives it away?  Is this why he has become so misguided and empty today?  Jack imagines his childhood bookended by the beginning and end of time, where writer/director Terrence Malick’s meta-narrative provides a linear mirror image to Weerasethakul’s cosmic cycling from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.  Memories and dreams fuel both films, but The Tree of Life cuts through time like a knife. Continue reading